Criterion Sunday 314: Pickpocket (1959)

This film certainly trades in all of Bresson’s hallmarks — the austere settings, frontal framing of his protagonists, their solid, even slightly wooden, acting style, casting their eyes to the ground as they deliver their laconic lines — and so anyone who gets on with his work will find plenty to like here, in what Bresson is very clear to point out is not a policier/thriller in the opening titles. That said, it has a grim determination to the way it unfolds, as our antihero Michel (Martin LaSalle) takes up a life of pickpocketing in lieu of honest work. If Bresson casts judgement on Michel, it’s not necessarily about his choice of lifestyle, as about the lack of attention he shows his relatives (like his dying mother, from whom he steals) of friends, and about how this seems to be rooted in a deep-seated rejection of Christian values. He’s a young man, clearly well-read, who fancies himself as smarter than those around him, and can thus be seen in a lineage with plenty of other filmic anti-heroes. Still, like all his protagonists, Bresson sees in him a path of redemption, and that’s what the plot of the film is, really, as he moves through criminality towards his redemption, embodied in the figure of Jeanne (Marika Green). This isn’t my favourite of Bresson’s works but it’s certainly interesting when looked at in the context of the other (more youthful) filmmaking taking place in Paris in 1959.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is probably filmmaker and famous cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s 52-minute documentary Les Modèles de ‘Pickpocket’ (2004). From doing a cursory search on the internet (specifically, on Babette Mangolte’s own website) it appears there is an 89-minute version of this film, although the 52-minute one attached as an extra to this Criterion edition doesn’t appear to be in need of any extra footage. Unlike most of these kinds of documentaries, it takes the form of a personal essay film, in which Mangolte encounters by chance at a party Pierre Leymarie, now a scientist on the verge of retiring, but known to her as one of the supporting actors in Bresson’s 1959 film, made 45 years earlier. She speaks to him, then tracks down Marika Green (who was only 16 when she made the film) in Austria, and the film’s star Martin LaSalle who’s living in Uruguay and barely ever even speaks French anymore (we hear him chatting in Spanish to Mangolte’s assistant). Each of them offer their own ideas about Bresson’s art, and of course all are quite different from how they were in the film — just their smiles and warmth make it clear to what extent they were in fact acting in Bresson’s film. It becomes clear that everyone glance and affect seen on screen was down to Bresson’s fastidious manipulation, and they put across various ideas as to what he was trying to achieve. Green reflects on how none of Bresson’s “models” really know one another, each monastically clinging to their own version of the master, and perhaps the love of Bresson is a deeply individual one after all.
  • There’s a six-minute clip of a French TV interview with Bresson from 1960, in which he discusses the film and his vision for it, how the idea came to him and some of what he was trying to put across in film, stuttered out under the glare of the two interviewers.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie; Length 76 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 18 June 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 8 May 2020).